The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed in the days following the December 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks, to oversee the Montgomery bus boycott. The organization would play a leading role in fighting segregation in the city and produce some of the civil rights movement‘s most well-known figures.
E. D. Nixon To protest Parks’s arrest, E. D. Nixon, the local leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council, organized a one-day boycott of Montgomery buses to take place on Monday, December 5. That evening, a mass meeting was held at the Holt Street Baptist Church to determine the future of the boycott. The group members decided they would continue to boycott the buses and urge others to do so as well and organized themselves into the Montgomery Improvement Association to oversee the effort. Later, MIA members took up the much larger task of improving race relations in the city. Working with the NAACP, the organization also mounted a legal challenge to the city’s segregated buses with Browder v. Gayle, led by NAACP attorney Fred Gray. That case, which involved civil rights activist Aurelia Browder bringing suit against Montgomery mayor William A. Gayle to integrate the bus system, would be decided the following year.
The MIA, like the boycott itself, was founded on the Christian principles of nonviolence and kindness toward one’s enemies. Local ministers were given leadership positions in the organization as well as in the boycott. The members elected as president 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr., pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and a newcomer to Montgomery. King was chosen for his eloquence and his calm demeanor, as well as for a more practical consideration; he was largely unknown to, and would not alarm, most whites in Montgomery. Although E. D. Nixon was widely recognized as the de facto leader of Montgomery’s black community, he was instead made treasurer of the MIA, and relations between him and King would remain tense throughout the boycott.
Jo Ann Robinson The MIA regularly held mass meetings at the Holt Street Baptist Church to pray and to collect donations for gas and tires for the people who drove the boycotters. One of the MIA’s most stalwart supporters was Georgia Gilmore, who organized the “Club from Nowhere,” a group of women who cooked and sold food to raise money for the boycott and also accepted anonymous donations. All donations to the MIA were anonymous to protect contributors from retaliation. Anecdotal evidence holds that the MIA benefitted from substantial contributions from whites. The MIA also produced the MIA Newsletter, which was written by Jo Ann Robinson and was widely circulated; particularly gripping articles could always be counted on to bring in a flurry of donations from across the country. In addition, the MIA formed a delegation to negotiate with the city. Their demands were relatively modest: courteous treatment by bus drivers, employment of African Americans as bus drivers, and first-come, first-served seating, rather than outright integration.
In spite of MIA’s moderate demands, in early 1956, Montgomery city leaders adopted a “get tough” policy with boycotters, which involved the public announcement of a false “settlement” with boycotters. City officials claimed that boycott representatives consented to the city’s terms, which necessarily meant abandoning the boycott’s demands. City leaders even produced three unknown black preachers to sign the “agreement.” On the same day that the Montgomery Advertiser reported the settlement, the MIA was able to locate the ministers, who admitted that they had been misled. The settlement scandal, far from deterring boycotters, strengthened their resolve. The city, in turn, stepped up police harassment. Carpool drivers, including King, were routinely stopped, searched, ticketed and arrested on trumped-up charges. The homes of King, E. D. Nixon, and Rev. Robert Graetz of Trinity Lutheran were targeted with explosives. In spite of the harassment and the threats, the boycott continued.
In June 1956, federal judges Richard Rives and Frank M. Johnson decided in favor of the MIA in the Browder v. Gayle case, ruling that segregated seating on city buses was unconstitutional. Montgomery officials continued to resist integration, however, and took Browder v. Gayle to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s ruling in November. After an almost 13-month-long boycott, Montgomery buses were integrated in December 1956. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Ralph Abernathy were among the first passengers on the newly integrated bus lines.
After the success of the boycott, the MIA helped found the much larger Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. In the eyes of many, the MIA was eclipsed by the newer organization, with King as its president. When King moved back to Atlanta in 1960, the MIA lost momentum. Although it was never again in the spotlight the way that it was during the boycott, the MIA continued to work to improve race relations in Montgomery, and Johnnie Carr, a Montgomery woman who was active in the boycott, served as the group’s president until her death in 2008.
- Chappell, David. Inside Agitators: White Southerners in the Civil Rights Movement. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
- Gaillard, Frye. Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
- Robinson, JoAnn Gibson. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.
- Williams, Donnie, and Wayne Greenhaw. The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People Who Broke the Back of Jim Crow. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2006.